The Chocolate River a Little More Clear

By NB AMDO Barry LaBillois (excerpts taken from various articles)
Source: Netawek Ikjikum Vol. 6 – Issue 3 December 2010

The Petitcodiac River ‘the river that bends like a bow” runs 129 km through south eastern part of New Brunswick draining a watershed of approximately 2,831 square kilometers. Prior to 1968 the Petitcodiac River was home to a large number of species. In the 1960s there were Atlantic Tomcod and Rainbow Smelt, both with populations in the hundreds of thousands; Gaspereau and American Shad, numbering in the tens of thousands; American Eel, Atlantic Salmon, Brook Trout, Lamprey, and Striped Bass, all originally numbering in the thousands; and Atlantic Sturgeon, with numbers in the several hundreds. Other fish included the Blue Back Herring, Brown Bullhead, Chain Pickerel, Smallmouth Bass, White Perch, and White Sucker. Marine mammals and sharks also occasionally visited the mouth of the river, including Pilot Whales, Atlantic White-Sided Dolphins, Harbour Porpoise, Harbour Seals and Porbeagle sharks. Freshwater molluscs filled the muds, including Brook Floater, Dwarf Wedgemussel, Eastern Ellipto, Eastern Floater, Eastern Pearlshell, and Triangle Floater.

Shipping on the Petitcodiac River played an important role in Moncton’s development. Much of this area depended on the coming and going of ships of various sizes. The reverse flow of the tide made the Petitcodiac River economical for vessels to travel. Large ships could ride the incoming tide from the deep waters below Hopewell Cape up to Moncton, unload cargo or passengers and then ride the ebb tide back to the deep water.

The numerous wharves that jutted out along the Moncton’s river front were kept busy from early spring until late fall. Companies located on the river each had their own wharf to receive or send goods. The wharves were also a social gathering place for Monctonians where they met and exchanged news with visiting crews and enjoyed the cool breeze from the river on warm summer evenings.

The river once exhibited one of the world’s highest tidal bores of 1 to 2 metres (3.3 – 6.6 ft) in height, with speeds of 5-13 km/hr (3.1 – 8.1mi/hr). These were comparable with tidal bores for the Qiantang River in China, the Hooghly River in India, and the Amazon River of South America.

In 1968, a rock-and-earth causeway was built between Moncton and Riverview to prevent agricultural flooding and to serve as a roadway between the two communities. After the construction of the causeway, the barrier reduced the bores to only 5 – 75 cm (2.0 – 30 inches).

Even in the late 60s the construction of the Petitcodiac causeway was controversial and history has proven that the causeway opponents were right. Over the decades numerous reports and oral histories have shown that the causeway caused numerous problems for the river and the surrounding ecosystem. In just 3 years, an estimated 10 million cubic metres of silt was deposited in the 4.7 km of the river beneath the causeway. Residents labeled this once clear river the “chocolate river” because of it new brownish tint. The New Brunswick government was forced to open the gates periodically since the late 80s to try to mitigate some problems but it was clear that the causeway would have to be removed. In 2003 Earthwild International designated the Petitcodiac River as the most endangered river in Canada.

Since the causeway was constructed six species have disappeared from the river. The Petitcodiac River was the only known habitat of the Dwarf Wedgemussel in Canada. It now only remains in just nine American watersheds following its extirpation from the Petitcodiac. The Atlantic Salmon is no longer in the watershed, and was a flagship species for Parliament to enact the Species at Risk Act (SARA). The American Shad was a favorite with fishermen, supporting a large and strong Shad fishery from 1870 to 1900- it too disappeared. Three other species have been eliminated from the river; Striped Bass, Atlantic Sturgeon, and Atlantic Tomcod.

On April 14th of this year, after more than 40 years, the causeway gates were opened, commencing one of the biggest restoration projects in the world. During the past seven months since the opening of the gates, the river is starting to show signs of life again. According to Marco Morency of the Petitcodiac Riverkeepers, the gates will remain open for the winter, if the ice buildup in the river system starts to accumulate then the gates will be closed, as they feel with the gates open the ice could damage the causeway. Reports of sturgeon, gaspereau, striped bass, shad, and marine mammals such as seals, and porpoises have been seen in the river. Even though the gate area represents only a small portion of the river’s actual width, the flow of water during the two tidal cycles each day has had a dramatic effect. With each ebb and flow of the tide, silt is lifted and shifted around. There are parts of the river where the tidal current has eroded the bank and other areas where the river is infilling. One of the biggest visible changes is the scouring of the river bottom directly upstream of the causeway gates where rushing water has chewed away at the silt to increase the depth of the channel.

On November 10, 2010, the Petitcodiac Riverkeepers received the 2010 Environmental Leadership Award from the New Brunswick Environment Minister, the Honorable Margaret-Ann Blaney. Mr. Morency, accepted the award noting that the thousands of supporters and residents who care for the river also made this restoration a reality. “It’s a very meaningful award for the organization. It has been a long journey rallying the communities and both levels of government to fix the errors of the past and to uphold the Fisheries Act. Now the government is engaging in the restoration project and recognizes our role in bringing forward a solution,” says Morency.

Petitcodiac River throughout the years

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